Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 16 October 2022. Tagged: Game, Theme.

Icon made by Freepik from


Term used by this encyclopedia to denote a game which models a military conflict using physical components, such as a mapboard and counters or miniature figures. Games which simulate war by other means are dealt with elsewhere; thus books which use rules similar to those of a Wargame are considered under Gamebooks, and strategy and tactics-based Videogames under Computer Wargames. Wargames typically emphasize accuracy of simulation, whether the events they model are real or fictional, using detailed rules and complex algorithms written in a manner reminiscent of computer programs. Dice are often used to introduce a random element representing the unpredictability of battle. While most Wargames require two (or more) players, some are designed for solitaire play, and a few (primarily those used by professional militaries for training) require the presence of a referee to interpret the rules. For most players the appeal of the form is based on the precision with which a game models possible events and the pleasure to be gained from intellectual competition between evenly matched opponents. Much of the art of Wargame design depends on the discovery of elegant compromises between these two potentially conflicting goals. The line separating Wargames and Board Games can be a blurred one; in borderline cases, such as The Creature that Ate Sheboygan (1979), this encyclopedia has based its choice of category on the degree of emphasis on simulation in the rules and the line of historical development that led to the game in question.

Wargames are a very old form of recreation, and their early history is obscure. One ancient example is Chaturanga, a precursor of modern Chess played in sixth-century India which simulated contemporary military strategy. A more recent form is described in Laurence Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767 9vols), in which Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim are obsessed with a game using miniature models played on the bowling green of Shandy Hall. The recognized modern line of development begins with Kriegspiel (circa 1811), a game used by Prussian military officers as a training exercise. Kriegspiel, which used miniature figures, was largely invented by one Von Reisswitz, after a simpler game played on a board with counters created by Helwig, Master of Pages for the Duke of Brunswick, in 1780. One interesting feature of Kriegspiel was the use of a neutral umpire to inform players of their opponents' dispositions (thus introducing a "fog of war", since players were denied perfect knowledge of the battlefield). Following the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, other armies introduced their own versions of the game, including the English Aldershot and the American Strategos (1880) designed by Charles Totten.

While no early modern Wargames were sf, the most influential figures in their development as games as opposed to training simulations appear to have been science fiction writers. The first such game to be commercially published may have been Fred T Jane's Naval War Game, included in the 1906 edition of his reference book Jane's Fighting Ships. While Jane's game was intended for a select circle of enthusiasts, H G Wells published his Little Wars: A Game for Boys from Twelve Years of Age to One Hundred and Fifty and for That More Intelligent Sort of Girls Who Like Boys' Games: With an Appendix on Kriegspiel (graph 1913) as a standalone volume, aimed at a much larger audience, though one composed primarily of young boys. Interestingly, Wells draws a clear distinction between the game (which deals with tactical conflicts between contemporary armies using simple rules) and actual warfare, suggesting that "Little Wars" could supersede real conflicts in the same way that the consumption of symbolic religious images had replaced human sacrifice. This is an argument which has reappeared frequently in debates over violence in Game Design. Another influential Wargame from this period is Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game (1940), a successor to Jane's game, originally developed during the 1930s and later expanded to deal with the Second as well as the First World War. Pratt played his game with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including Robert A Heinlein, L Sprague de Camp and L Ron Hubbard.

All of these games, however, used miniature models, which were too expensive at the time for anyone other than dedicated hobbyists. In 1954 Charles Roberts designed and published Tactics, a game which simulates contemporary tactical conflicts between two hypothetical armies. Tactics used a flat mapboard and cardboard counters, components which could be mass produced relatively cheaply. In 1958 Roberts founded Avalon Hill (AH), a US company dedicated to producing similar games. Many of the detailed mechanics employed in later board and counter Wargames, including the allocation of points specifying how far units such as infantry or artillery can move in a game turn and the requirement that entering more difficult terrain costs more points, are already present in Tactics. The World War Two game D-Day (1961 AH; rev 1977) designed by Charles Roberts replaced the square grid (used in earlier Avalon Hill releases to divide the map up into areas which could be occupied by a unit) with a hexagonal one, an innovation borrowed from contemporary military simulations produced by the RAND Corporation. Hexagons, unlike squares, do not require special rules for diagonal movement; they have been used in most subsequent board and counter Wargames and many Computer Wargames. In 1969 Avalon Hill acquired its first real competitor with the arrival of another American company, Simulations Publications Inc (SPI). SPI concentrated solely on producing Wargames, while Avalon Hill also released Board Games, and developed new works far more frequently than its rival. The result was rapid growth in what had previously still been a fairly obscure hobby.

By the end of the 1960s the core design elements that would be used in board and counter Wargames had all been established. Games were either turn-based (in which play alternated between the opponents) or simultaneous (in which all players wrote down their movements in advance, and then executed them together). Avalon Hill, whose products emphasized speed and entertaining gameplay, tended to release turn-based games, while SPI, which favoured accuracy of simulation, often produced ones using simultaneous movement. Games were constructed on a range of spatial and temporal scales, from the year-long grand strategy of D-Day to the fast-moving infantry tactics of a game such as Sniper! (1973 SPI) designed by James Dunnigan. In general, Wargames are divided into three categories: tactical (which concentrate on brief, local conflicts), strategic (which deal with the conduct of an entire war) and operational (which model the outcome of a single battle). In SPI's later "Starforce Trilogy", for example, Starforce: Alpha Centauri (1974) is an operational game, while its sequels Outreach and Starsoldier are respectively strategic and tactical in scope (see Starforce: Alpha Centauri). By contrast, games which use miniature figures are almost all tactical in nature, since larger scales would require unfeasible numbers of models to be used. In the late 1960s Dunnigan, who founded SPI with Redmond Simonsen, had begun to develop a theory of Wargames which treated them as a form of "analytic history", simulations of actual events which lent themselves to non linear exploration and experimentation leading to counterfactual results. At this time all Wargames dealt with historical or contemporary subjects; sf Wargames had not been invented.

The first science fiction Wargame was Lensman (1969), self-published by Philip Pritchard. Another early game which attempts to provide a detailed simulation of war in space is 4000 AD (1972), though that was produced by Waddingtons – a UK company normally associated with Board Game development – and seems to have had little historical influence. Lensman, however, helped inspire the first science-fictional Wargames released by major companies: SPI's Starforce: Alpha Centauri (1974) and Triplanetary (1973), a product of the newly formed Game Designers' Workshop (GDW). Meanwhile, the less well known Guidon Games released Chainmail (1971; rev 1972; rev 1975) designed by Gary Gygax, Jeff Perren, a miniatures based medieval game with rules for incorporating Magic and fantastic beasts (see Supernatural Creatures) which make it the first commercially published Fantasy Wargame. These works proved highly popular, and began a boom in sf and fantasy Wargames which formed a major part of the general rapid expansion in the hobby during the 1970s. Notable examples, all of the board and counter type, include SPI's Battlefleet Mars (1977) and Sorcerer (1975) designed by Redmond Simonsen, a fantasy game based on an innovative magical system with mechanics resembling those of the traditional game of "scissors paper stone", as well as Avalon Hill's Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1976). Many other games were created by new American companies which, like GDW, largely concentrated on sf and fantasy. Into this latter category fall the mythopoeic narrative game White Bear and Red Moon (1975 Chaosium; 1980 rev vt Dragon Pass; 1993 rev vt La Guerre des Héros in France) designed by Greg Stafford, set in the richly detailed Heroic Fantasy world of Glorantha, Stellar Conquest (1974), Ogre (1977), Star Fleet Battles (1979) and the slightly later Car Wars (1982). These games could be divided into the same broad categories as historical and contemporary Wargames, from the grand strategy of Battlefleet Mars to the squad level tactics of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, but the sf and fantasy works were unusual for the depth and complexity of their backgrounds. Since there was no historical context, designers of science fiction games were forced to create detailed Future Histories containing conflicts which could be simulated using Wargames. In some cases, such as Ogre, these frame narratives (see Interactive Narrative) led to the creation of fictional Ties.

By the start of the 1980s, however, the industry was experiencing a rapid decline in sales. Several explanations exist for this phenomenon. Many of the sf readers who had been attracted to Wargames by such works as Starforce: Alpha Centauri came to prefer the newly devised Role Playing Game form, with its much stronger focus on story. More generally, players frequently found the complexity of Wargames daunting, and experienced difficulty in locating opponents, resulting in unsatisfactory solitaire games of works intended for two or more players. Both of these problems, however, were largely resolved by Computer Wargames, since the computer could both perform the necessary calculations and provide an opponent, though not necessarily a skilled one. The steady improvements in available microcomputer hardware seen throughout the 1980s thus led naturally to players abandoning traditional Wargames in favour of the computer-based equivalent. Various attempts were made by Wargame developers to reverse these trends, including the introduction of simpler, easy to learn games such as The Creature that Ate Sheboygan (1979) and games that incorporated elements from RPGs, as in John Carter: Warlord of Mars (1979). By the late 1980s, however, the industry had largely collapsed. Web and Starship (1984) was one of the last sf board and counter games to be published entirely on its own merits. Later games of this type were often linked to RPGs, as with the 2300 AD spinoff Star Cruiser (1987) and the Traveller games Brilliant Lances (1993) and Battle Rider (1994).

Wargames based on the use of miniature figures had, however, been largely unaffected by both the 1970s boom and the subsequent crash in the board and counter form. Instead, they had gradually become more popular as games which required large armies constructed from expensive models and hand crafted scenery were joined by ones using cheaper cardboard or plastic miniatures, sometimes taking place on preprinted maps resembling those of a board and counter game. Miniatures games frequently have less complex rules than board-based ones, and the use of figures which can be collected, customized and displayed adds a physical dimension which the virtual worlds created by Videogames cannot provide. As a result, miniatures games, though never as popular as board and counter ones were during the boom, have remained commercially viable. The most popular such games in the 1980s and subsequent decades have frequently been sf or fantasy; examples include Battletech (1984), Sky Galleons of Mars (1988) (see Space: 1889), Space Hulk (1989) (see Warhammer 40,000), Crimson Skies (1998) and Collectible Miniatures Games such as Heroclix (2002). By far the most commercially successful of recent miniatures-based Wargames, however, are Games Workshop's two main products: the Sword and Sorcery Warhammer Fantasy Battle (1983; rev 1984; rev 1987; rev 1992; rev 1996; rev 2000; rev 2006; rev 2010) designed by Bryan Ansell, Richard Halliwell, Rick Priestley and the Far Future science fiction Warhammer 40,000 (1987). With this, the form has come full circle, from the first set of rules intended for a mass market, created by the UK sf author H G Wells in 1913 for use with miniature figures, to the present, dominated by UK produced games of fantasy and science-fictional warfare with model armies. [NT]

see also: After the Holocaust; Attack Vector: Tactical; Empire I; Holy War.

further reading


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies